Abdul Aziz, 31, stands outside the Golconda Fort every morning out of habit. As he does that, many things weigh on his mind — the most important being how to get the next meal for his family. A private guide at the fort for two decades now, Aziz has had no work ever since a nationwide lockdown owing to the pandemic was announced in late March this year.
Friday was no different. Aziz was unaware of the Centre’s decision allowing the opening of monuments that are in the custody of the Archaeological Survey of India by July 6. The ASI’s Hyderabad circle takes care of historical monuments like the Charminar, the Warangal Fort, the Thousand Pillared Temple and Ramappa Temple in Warangal, the Alampur Temple in Gadwal district, and a couple of prehistoric excavation sites. Among these, the Golconda Fort witnesses the maximum tourist footfall.
Even as the fort is closed for visitors, several people can be seen every day taking photographs from outside its main entrance. With Bonalu, a state festival of Telangana, set to begin this week, several people arrive at the fort seeking permission to visit the hilltop temple. Denied entry, they usually offer a quick prayer from outside the gate before leaving.
The history of the fort which Aziz narrates to his customers is what he has learned from his elders. “My life so far has been around this fort. I love my job as much as I am proud of my heritage,” he says.
Originally a mud fort built over a granite hilltop by Kakatiya rulers of Warangal in the year 1143, the fort was called ‘Golla Konda’, meaning a shepherd’s hill. It was fortified later between the 14th and 17th centuries by the Bahmani Sultans and then the Qutub Shahi dynasty which made the fort its seat of power. Except for the Diwan-e-Khas and Diwan-e-Aam, the multi-storied darbar halls on the hilltop, the rest of the fort was destroyed by Mughal emperor Aurangazeb after the battle for Golconda in 1867.
“The fort was carved out of the granite hill between 1518 and 1580. The outer fort is 7 sq.km area and the inner fort is 3 sq.km area. There are eight doors, 52 windows, 87 cannons, and 47 bastions. Everything including the palace was destroyed by Aurangazeb after the battle that lasted 8 months and 9 days,” says Aziz. But many would not know, he says, that the Mughal emperor had left behind his favourite cannon called Fateh Rahbar, made of gold, in Golconda after its siege.
Fort to open on July 6 with curbs
The officials of ASI’s Hyderabad held several discussions Friday following instructions from the head office. One of their major concerns is whether the Golconda Fort falls under a containment zone demarcated by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. However, after the GHMC gave a go-ahead, the ASI has decided to open the monument on July 6, Monday, but with certain curbs in place.
“We have decided to restrict the number of visitors to 2,000. The ticket counter will remain closed and entry will only by online booking via the ASI website. No eatables will be allowed inside and only packaged drinking water could be allowed in the canteen inside, for which only digital payments will be accepted,” M Naveen Kumar, Conservation Assistant in-charge of Golconda told indianexpress.com.
After the lockdown was eased, the cleaning and maintenance work at the fort has been going on for the last month. According to Naveen, hand sanitisers will be kept near the entrance and every visitor will have to undergo thermal screening. They will be asked to return in four hours. “The average footfall used to be nearly 5,000. We will follow all instructions from the government. If we get any COVID-19 case in Golconda, we may have to shut down then,” he added.
Welcoming the Centre’s decision, P Anuradha Reddy, co-convenor of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)-Hyderabad chapter stressed that people will have to respect the guidelines and ensure physical distancing.
“We have seen that the disease is spreading in congested spaces. It is good to have our monuments open to the public. Our heritage sites provide open space for people to disperse. At the same time, the rise in the spread of disease is also because of the carelessness of the public. Unless people follow all the guidelines, it is going to be a problem,” said Reddy.
Tourist guides out of work
Aziz, born and brought up in the Resham Bagh near the fort, does not remember a time when the fort had been closed beyond a day. “I have survived several challenges in life but it has been a very tough three months without work. We are surviving on charity of local leaders and social workers, apart from the government ration,” says Aziz whose family comprises his wife and two school-going daughters.
A guided tour around the fort takes two to three hours, he says, adding he would easily earn around Rs 600-800 a day. One among the 35 private guides at the monument, he says he can converse in English, Hindi, Telugu and Urdu.
Notwithstanding the decision to open the monument to the public, how long would it take for normalcy to return? Fifty-seven-year-old Mohammed Shahed, an autorickshaw driver near the fort who also works as a city tour guide, says “as long as it takes the public to forget about the virus.”
While waiting for customers near the fort Friday morning, Shahed says a lot of people used to come from Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and northern India. “Even among the locals, everyone loved to take their family out once in a while after days of hard work. People are still worried about the virus.”
Shahed, however, is hopeful that tourists would return. He says though he doesn’t have school education, he has the knowledge and experience of a seasoned guide. “Once I take someone for a city tour, they never forget me. They would recommend me to their friends too. It is because of the service,” he says.
A three-day city tour with Shahed costs between Rs 1,200 and Rs 1,500. He takes his guests to the Charminar, Qutb Shahi tombs, Salar Jung Museum, Chowmahalla Palace, Nizam’s museum, NTR Gardens, Lumbini Park, Birla planetarium, and the Ramoji film city.
“Whoever wishes to tour Hyderabad and learn about the history, it is meaningless if the tour does not start from Golconda Fort. Tourists would return whenever it is time,” he concludes.
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